In the previous Chronicle I attempted to make the case for grounding generative anthropology in a form of introspective reflection called originary phenomenology, based not on an intuition of our fundamental subjective experience on the model of the Cartesian cogito, but on the construction of a scenario embodying an originary hypothesis that would mark the moment of transition between prehuman and human subjectivity (see Chronicle 555).
What remains to be explained is how, this scenario once constructed, we are able to guarantee the intuition of it that we would communicate to others. How can we persuade our fellows of the plausibility of our narrative of this passage from a prehuman to a human state? In a word, how can we confidently identify ourselves with creatures not yet, but in the process of becoming, human?
The solution to this dilemma is to focus on the key feature, according to the very substance of the originary hypothesis, that we must have in common with our immediate prehuman ancestors. Inspired by René Girard’s fundamental intuition that identifies mimetic conflict as humanity’s fundamental problem, GA proposes that, as a result of proto-humans’ increased propensity to mimesis, they would reach a point at which they were no longer amenable to prelinguistic modes of conflict regulation, thereby rendering inoperable the prehuman system of serial distribution, in which the Alpha male makes the first choice, followed by the Beta and the rest.
The originary hypothesis thus proposes that the crossing of the “Rubicon,” the transition from animal to human, takes place in in the interactive domain of mimesis. A hypothetical originary crisis in which participants would no longer be bound by conditioned reflexes to wait their turn in the Alpha-Beta series would have posed a mortal danger both to the safety of the participants and to the distribution of nourishment on which proto-human communities depended, and in the absence of a solution, these communities could not long have survived.
GA and Mimesis
Although during the reign of “French Theory,” Girard was often dismissed as “less sophisticated” than the (post-)metaphysical thinkers whose focus was the philosophical rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition, one cannot help recognizing that today, his thinking is far more frequently referenced than that of his contemporaries, including Jacques Derrida, the most significant of the French Theorists.
Unlike Derridean deconstruction, until recently so popular among academics, mimesis or imitation is something we can all understand. Mimesis is essential to all forms of intelligence, and particularly to the human. Aristotle’s remark that humans are the most mimetic of creatures was a profound anthropological observation—one that, had he been able to make it the basis of his philosophy rather than restricting it to his Poetics, would have transformed Western intellectual history. For it would have sufficed to deduce the consequences of taking this characterization as the definition of the human to pass from the world of metaphysics to that of generative anthropology, having observed that, once mimesis has reached a certain level, it is no longer compatible with prelinguistic/prehuman mechanisms for the mitigation of intraspecific conflict.
It is paradoxical, yet in retrospect perfectly understandable, that despite Aristotle’s lucid observation, only Judeo-Christian rather than Greek culture was able to grasp the key connection between mimesis and human uniqueness via the invention of the sign. If animals lack (symbolic) signs, it is simply because they are not mimetic enough to need them, whereas humans are too mimetic to do without them. As Girard himself might have said, toute l’anthropologie est là.
The Greeks could not come up with this thought because they could not conceive of our inventing language, rather than discovering and exploring it. Plato’s Ideas are not, like human words, understood as mere human creations. It is this fundamental attitude, still very much that of analytic philosophers today, that I have called the metaphysical mindset. Metaphysics may be defined most simply as the perspective that takes mature language, made up chiefly of declarative sentences or propositions, as its fundamental form, as in Chomsky’s SP + VP, despite the obvious necessity that the first signs of language must have been simple ostensives, pointing to their referents rather than using predicates to tell us about them.
Hence, also paradoxically enough, Girard, the thinker who under the inspiration of Christianity saw more deeply into mimesis than any other, was essentially uninterested in language as the foundational element of the human—and of its conception of the sacred. It was, in contrast with all his fellow French Theorists, this lack of interest in language as such, as opposed to its use in literature and religious/mythical texts, that allowed Girard to avoid the metaphysical trap, described by Fred Jameson, loosely translating Nietzsche, as The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, 1975). Girard’s mistrust in metaphysics was rooted in the intuition that the real prison-house is not language itself, but the idea of language as independent of humanity, which is the basis of metaphysics, or in other words, of Classical and modern philosophy.
Once we understand that language must first be a practical, conflict-avoiding activity before it can become a truth-telling, reasoning activity, we are ready to understand why GA is possible, that is, why we are indeed able, given the appropriate intellectual stimuli, to intuit the passage from the prehuman to the human.
Just as only a thinker such as Girard who, being uninterested in language per se, could fully accept the Christian equation of Jesus with “the Word,” was able to grasp the centrality of mimesis to the human project, only a thinker like Derrida, uninterested in the human per se, and who could conceive of the transcendence of metaphysics only in the paradoxically post-metaphysical terms of the “non-concept” différance, could condense in a single word the anthropological character of language. La différance can be considered the philosophical/metaphysical translation of what I have been calling the sacred: the spiritual force that defers and interdicts rather than physiologically inhibits our appetitive drive toward the scene’s central object.
But Derrida’s (post-)metaphysical terminology never allows us to differentiate, as we must, between the Saussurean differentiation between different signifiers and their different signifieds and the ontological difference between the universe of the sign, including its signified/meaning, and the “real world” in which it manifests itself—a separation equivalent to that effected by what Sartre calls the néant separating the conscious subject from his scene of consciousness—the space of human freedom.
Yet clearly the very possibility of differentiating among signs is dependent on the prior ontological separation of signs from the reality they refer to. This separation is in turn a function of the interpersonal nature of linguistic communication: the possibility given me to add to your world, not a real thing but a sign, designating something, sharing with you my judgment of the significance of this designatum, which at the origin is tantamount to communicating, in the expectation that you will similarly communicate it to me in return, our common recognition, in fear of inciting communal violence, of its sacrality, its interdicted-in-the-world status, which does not modify its worldly reality.
Animals have perceptual fields and can concentrate on an important object, but the scene is a uniquely human phenomenon that depends on the co-presence of the human community as spectators-participants. At the origin, the scene must be understood as coeval with the sign as the means of mutual communication among its participants concerning the sacred interdiction of the central object of interest.
The exemplary scenic activity is the (sacrificial) feast, the human successor to the no longer functional serial system of distribution practiced by higher apes. The originary hypothesis describes the transition from the common contemplation by a profane human periphery of a desirable central object, protected by a “sacred” sense of fearful interdiction, as mutually communicated by the reciprocal exchange of the sign designating the center, from breaking down into mimetic conflict, to the scene’s consummation in a feast in which the peripheral members of the community share “center stage” with the central object and distribute it “equally” as food. This sharing later evolves into using the scene as the focus of specialized activities, including, along with feasts and fêtes, non-participatory artworks such as bardic narrations and dramas detached from the scene’s original primary function of assuring “egalitarian” communal nourishment.
Today, we find it normal to value scenic experiences unconnected with our biological needs even in isolation from the fellow humans with whom these experiences presumably help us to avoid mimetic conflict by, as Aristotle put it, “purging” us of “pity and terror”—terms best understood as the positive and negative modes of mimetic identification. In artworks, the sacred, impersonated by the authorial self, defines a providential, community-preserving solution, allowing us to “act out” our subjective reactions in the knowledge that, unlike in the real world, they will have no possible effect on the result.
Today’s vast investment in fictions in contrast with culturally exemplary scriptural histories reflects, and in cultural terms may be said to define, modernity: the mindset that considers canonical models, even where still relevant, as no longer sufficient to allow us to understand the full range of human experience. The ubiquity of screens as now portable versions of the cultural scene is not wrongly understood as having become a screenic alternative to our personal life.
The Scenic Imagination
Returning to the foundational question of our ability to intuit the transformation that takes place in the originary scene, we must imagine the presence in the originary group of an as yet unexpressed need to share in a non-rivalrous manner the central object’s nutritive and potentially unifying value. The distribution previously achieved among apes by the serial distribution system had been effected in principle without conflict, but in the absence of any positive sense of communal unity such as the mutual exchange of signs allows us to communicate. In contrast, in the human scene, the “sacred” deferral of individual appetitive action makes possible communal solidarity (to use Durkheim’s term), anticipated by the shared sign as an effective promise of the fraternal sharing realized in the concluding feast.
Thus, rather than understanding the “Rubicon” of language as a leap from inarticulateness to abstraction, we should see it as the communal discovery of différance, of deferral-as-differentiation, not in the first place among signs, but between signs—aborted gestures of appropriation—and what they are no longer attempts to appropriate, but are content merely to mutually designate, and consequently to permit us to view as the common possession of the human community, to be distributed “equally” among its members.
We have no difficulty in conceiving this because, as in every human society, we continue to celebrate Seders, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and the like: family and communal celebrations in which, by no means coincidentally, the sharing of food is the key component. And this equal sharing remains true even when spiritualized as the sharing of Christ’s body and blood in the Mass.
The pleasure attendant on our originary discovery of egalitarian distribution is never final; neither our “original sin” of mimetic rivalry nor our perpetual need to transcend it ever leaves us. Our first step across the Rubicon has become the model for an indefinite series of others, of a kind that our animal friends, happily or unfortunately, cannot conceive.
We are well advised to imagine ourselves at the start of this process in order better to comprehend its happily inconclusive nature—and at the same time realize that keeping it inconclusive, that is, deferring its termination in a montée aux extrêmes that risks bringing about our annihilation, is our most sacred duty to our species—and to the sacred itself which, as far as we know, we alone embody.